WASHINGTON - The United States is withdrawing its team of negotiators from Pakistan without securing a long-sought deal with Islamabad to allow trucks to again supply NATO troops in neighbouring Afghanistan, the Pentagon said on Monday.
The decision is the latest sign of troubled ties with Islamabad and was announced just days after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the United States was reaching the limits of its patience because of the safe havens Pakistan offered to insurgents.
Pakistan's envoy to the United States had warned that Panetta's comments last Thursday in Kabul were unhelpful to efforts to narrow the differences between the two countries and came at a critical moment in negotiations.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said the decision to withdraw the negotiating team was not imposed by Pakistan. He said the team of negotiators had been there for about six weeks and deserved a rest.
"I believe that some of the team left over the weekend and the remainder of the team will leave shortly," Little told reporters. "This was a U.S. decision."
Pakistan closed ground supply routes through its territory last year to protest a cross-border NATO air attack that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
As a result, NATO has turned to countries to the north of Afghanistan for land routes as the U.S.-led alliance begins a withdrawal of its forces from the country next year.
But resupplying troops in Afghanistan through the northern route is about 2-1/2 times more expensive than shipping items through Pakistan, a U.S. defense official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Little acknowledged that securing a deal with Pakistan remained a priority and said the team of negotiators could return at any moment. In the meantime, military officials attached to the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad would be able to discuss the matter with Pakistani officials.
"We will continue to work through the (ground supply route) matter with Pakistan. And the members of the team that are leaving, or have, left are prepared to return to Islamabad at any moment to continue discussions in person," Little said.